Lamb’s Conduit Street22 minute read

The Great Wen’s Antidote: The Value of Informal, Local Governance in London, and Why Lamb’s Conduit Street is Streets Ahead of the Capital

A ‘Sportsperson’s Drinking Guide’ written for The Beaver forty years ago recommended LSE students visit Lambs Conduit Street for its pubs; the Rising Sun ‘is right outside Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and has a goodly range of nurses too’ (Volume and Ramrod, 1977, p.5). Although some of the views are outdated, the street still gives succour to a local community that still seeks the independent restaurants and shops, vital services and nearby green space, ‘Coram’s Fields’, which, collectively, provides Lambs Conduit Street with a village atmosphere in the heart of the capital, as one shopkeeper explained in an interview.

Research Focus

While it may be exemplifying the ‘ongoing gentrification of significant tracts of the inner city’ (Robson and Butler, 2001, p.70), a term created by Glass (1964), Lambs Conduit Street is also a space where acts of resistance to, and rejections of, a corporate city stereotyped by chains of coffee shops and incoherent communities. While the likes of J Crew moved in three years ago (Rosenblum, 2013), there is still a rich variety of long-standing shops and businesses which support the local community. This project is interested in how this occurred, and the processes and policies shaping what is a predominantly independent high street.

The research question, ‘how have informal forms of local urban governance in the area around Lambs Conduit Street influenced the local population’s sense of belonging?’, seeks to identify the forms of urban governance supporting the local community, the extent to which local people identify to a greater extent with their locality rather than wider spatial flows, and the sustainability of this model for Lambs Conduit Street. This project will then conclude that informal local governance strongly influences the local people’s sense of community, and the management of the local economy is the most influential factor. The focus is on developments from the 1700s onwards, with a particular consideration of contemporary events following the transition to an entrepreneurial style of governance in London in the 1980s which supports a neo-liberal agenda and has enabled globalising forces to further influence the city (Harvey, 1989).


This is a question that sits at the heart of questions about the development of hyper-successful urban spaces as they become “global cities” (Sassen, 1991). While broader, formal, political forces like borough councils and the GLA control the city, smaller, more informal organisations can still influence how spaces are governed. In this study of Lambs Conduit Street, “urban governance” refers to Imrie, Lees and Raco’s (2009) definition focusing on the “institutional assemblages” of different groupings claiming power over certain urban spaces. This is an important process shaping the city but we need to think more deeply about how these groups form in the first place which directly links to ideas of identity and belonging in response to the globalising processes shaping London. Therefore, this study will only look at local, community based forms of governance that are remote from “the state” whether it is at a regional, national or global level.

Within literature on the geographies of identity, Bourdieu (2005, p.45), identifies habitus as ‘a set of acquired characteristics which are the product of social conditions’. Thus, the community in Lambs Conduit Street, given its’ shared economic foundation of independent businesses, is able to shape the environment within which people use the space. This is critically advanced by Castells (2010, p.2) who argues that while places like Lambs Conduit Street can form unique environments within a wider context, a “plurality of identities” exists as a result of conflicting interests between globalisation and a ‘widespread surge of powerful expressions of collective identity that challenge globalisation and cosmopolitanism’. Hence why the research question is interested in if and how people can feel that their sense of belonging is shaped on multiple levels: the local and the global.

Questioning globalisation leads to conflict between local people and the state in some instances (Amin, 2002) and archival material will later show how the community has mobilised against Camden Council, as well as corporations, on a number of occasions. This defiance by the community is, arguably, resisting a “decentering of culture” (McEwan, 2008) but this raises questions of whose culture is excluded as Lambs Conduit Street locals seek to defend the status quo (Murray, 2014). Towards the conclusion this report will identify how inequalities in London still give credence to its’ nickname the “Great Wen”; a term used by Cobbett (1830) to describe London as a city for whom its success had become over-inflated.


The history of Lambs Conduit Street begins to explain its’ significance for London’s development. The conduit, from which the street’s name derives, provided a vital water supply to a city whose population was increasing. Investment in the area began when William Lamb financially contributed to the reinforcing of the conduit in the late 1500s (Weinreb and Hibbert, 1983), and its legacy continued well into the 17th century as a water source during the Great Fire of London. Although many other conduits were considered redundant following fire damage in 1666, the dam was redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren (London’s Streets, 2013) and has been preserved under many of the buildings. Of further interest is the Foundling Hospital which was built in the 1740s on a site now occupied by Coram’s Fields (see Figure 1) following the relocation of the institution in 1926 (Moncrieff, 1927). The creation of a hospital to serve abandoned children was at a time when Bloomsbury was still ‘on the very outskirts of London’ (Porter, 1988, p.61) but supported by the growth of the transport networks the area soon became residential.

The history of land ownership shares many close links with this development of the space. The Rugby School has owned land here for five hundred years (TNA, 1993) and what was originally a bequest of land from a local grocer is now a charitable trust which lets out shops based upon the needs of the community. As the area’s population increased, the Rugby Estate’s power strengthened as the value of land rose. This organisation will become a key interest group moving forward through this project because of the significant impact they have had in influencing informal, local governance in Lambs Conduit Street.


This project has focused solely on qualitative data which has come from both archival sources and research undertaken in the field. Quantitative data was not used but future analysis would be supported by surveys focusing on the economic data looking at how far visitors have travelled to the area, and the amount of time people spend shopping in this location compared to other central London area to further establish the value individuals put on the space.

The literature review preceded the varied archival research which evaluated a wide number of sources; these included Camden Council Archives, biographies, film, blogs, maps, social listening, and oral histories. These played an important role in explaining the narratives of previous struggles over identity in Lambs Conduit Street that fieldwork alone could not have thoroughly investigated. Bias is evident in the newspapers and memoirs, for example, because while they provide a good overview of an event, they do not necessarily speak for all, and their voice may be exclusionary for others. However, this project has mitigated against this problem by providing a wide range of sources and a number of perspectives on each event studied here in the history of the street. This element of the research was useful in providing an understanding of both the history of governance in the area, and the response of the local people.

While the first element of the research looked at the evolution of governance, and the history of public action, the participant observation and semi-structured interviews that were then conducted in the field provided a better understanding of the current challenges facing the area. Respondents all owned businesses in Lambs Conduit Street, and the adjacent Rugby Street, and were chosen specifically for the value that they would provide to the research. The archive material was still useful in contextualising modern attitudes but it was important to understand the perspectives of the current users of the space to help answer the section of the research question interested in geographies of identity and belonging.

Following completion of the fieldwork and research, notes were then transcribed and classified. Due to the commercially sensitive nature of the research, data had to be anonymised and “informed consent” was sought for respondents interviewed formally.

SECTION A: What historical forms of urban governance have supported the local community? What does this look like now?

Coram's Fields
Figure 1: Coram’s Fields

Lambs Conduit Street has benefitted from a long history of community led governance. Despite remaining under the jurisdiction of the local council, the economic decisions taken by the Rugby School, to preserve and support independent businesses, often positively influenced the local sense of belonging. This is has supported the community in creating its’ own informal, local modes of governance, including co-operatives and community associations who all benefit from lower rents. Despite the area experiencing transformations in the mid-twentieth century in terms of residential housing (many townhouses were converted into flats), and the nearby, brutalist, post-war Brunswick Centre development providing space for new shops, the land use has changed little from the Victorian high street which prompted early investment. The Rugby School have sought to maintain a viable mix of independent shops, and continue to invest in the area.

The People's Supermarket
Figure 2: The People’s Supermarket

Consequently, this supports literature which suggests that despite sociological arguments talking about the death of the local, ‘attachment to place remains remarkably obdurate’ (Savage et al., 2004, p.1). Governance has a key role to play in the globalising urban landscape as further competition within the “institutional assemblages” means that often ‘the central city has lost much of its earlier heterogeneity…by becoming a haven for a restricted number of groups’ (Dupré, 1970, p.358). Archival research highlighted how the area became more than a local high street, but a place where space became disputed as globalisation’s reach meant that ‘localities offer[ed] spaces…contested by various sets of actors’ (Body-Gendrot, 2000, p.26). For example, a newspaper clipping headlined ‘How to survive after the big chains roll into town’ immediately reinforced the notion that a hierarchy of actors in the space creates conflict; corporations have more power than independent shops who cannot compete in terms of volume of stock but quality and something specialised (Tyler, 2007). As a result, it became even more important that the Rugby School act as a charitable trust, and protect the leases of independent traders, so they could survive.

Figure 3: J Crew Signage
Figure 3: J Crew Signage

This continues to highlight the significance of local governance in supporting the community. As Massey (2005) highlights, national governments speak about globalisation as if it is inevitable but the response of local residents in Lambs Conduit Street suggests otherwise. The Rugby School is not unique in acting as a charitable trust; local organisations are also run for the benefit of the community and The People’s Supermarket (see Figure 1) is a good example of this. Its’ co-operative business model, where locals volunteer in return for grocery discounts, was celebrated by David Cameron in 2010 during his “Big Society” campaign. His focus was on motivating people to help their local communities by providing spare time or resources for the betterment of society (Morrison, 2011). It supports the argument that the ‘placeless consumer is…grossly oversimplified [because] consumers will often belong to particular networks’ (Malpass, 2007, p.42). It is this sense of identity, created through organisations influencing the community, that helps to govern the local economy. For example, participant observation highlighted the ways in which the few chains that do occupy retail space have adapted their stores to blend in with the local environment; Aesop have a water feature running along their shelves in tribute to the conduit that gave the street its’ name, J Crew have not used any large store signs (see Figure 2) while branding reflects the cultural history of the area, and Rymans have painted their frontage pale grey which is in keeping with the area but does not reflect their own corporate colours. These examples reflect the ways in which companies have understood the importance of reflecting the local identity, something which is shaped by both the land-owners and the land-users.

However, while community-focused, informal, local governance challenges the idea that London is too disparate to govern (Travers, 2004), a normative conclusion should not be reached at this stage which advocates that councils are redundant. Archival research highlighted an example where the Rugby Estate were criticised for damaging a listed Georgian townhouse on the street during renovations (CNJ, 1988). The Architect’s Journal (1987) wrote that Camden Council ‘were taking its responsibilities seriously’ in prosecuting representatives of the school for the poor quality of work undertaken. However, an earlier article in the Sunday Times (McGhie, 1985) highlighted that the council’s initial reluctance to let the renovations happen drew criticism because these developments would allow the building to be sold. What this final example highlights is the need for formal and informal modes of local governance to operate together. It is not simply a case of arguing for solely bottom up development; both councils and community groups require a harmonious working relationship to support the functions of the local area while preserving its’ character.

SECTION B: Do local people identify to a greater extent with their locality rather than wider spatial flows? If so, to what extent is this influenced by how the local space is governed?

The local people of Lambs Conduit Street have historically fought to maintain the identity of the space despite facing challenges from councils, corporations and, in some examples, the Rugby Estate. Thus, the ways in which the local space is governed not only influences how the community’s sense of belonging is shaped but it also reflects broader debates in the literature examining how identities are shaped. As Castells (2010) recognises, there is a relationship between “globalisation”, “identity” and the “state” which leads to protest, and contestation, over space. This is evident in the local area where archival research provides clarity on the extent to which people have fought against dominant economic forces. This directly contradicts the likes of Cloke et al. (2005) who argue that local identities are formed as a product of globalisation compressing space and time because they ignore questions of power; specifically, for whom identity is formed and how.

Lambs Conduit Street has played a key role in London’s progress; whether supplying a vital water source to a growing population in the 1600s, or acting as a base for auxiliary services during the Blitz where an eyewitness told of the destruction of ‘many old buildings in the vicinity of Theobalds Road [which signified that the era of] ‘playing soldiers ended’ (Rubinstein, 1983, p.20). In

modern times, it has provided a focus for city-wide disillusionment with elements of corporate London. A key example of this are the2012 protests focused on a branch of Starbucks directly opposite a much-loved, independent café called Tutti’s. During fieldwork, shopkeepers spoke of how significant this was, while social listening (see Figure 4) provided a broader understanding of how the community experienced the closure. Photos on Instagram revealed how critical posters were placed on thedoors of Starbucks, and many people on Twitter wrote about its’ closure positively. Local celebrities like Rupert Everett joined the campaign for Starbucks’ closure and parliamentary debates examining the state of the nation’s high streets were subsequently prompted (Tyler, 2007).What this does highlight, conversely, is the notion that while multiple identities are not formed through the adoption of globalisation, they can still be generated through a shared rejection of globalisation as the protests had a wider political influence at the national level.

Starbucks 1

Starbucks 2

Starbucks 3
Figure 4: Examples of social listening concerning the closure of Starbucks

The history of protest significantly shaping the area highlights the extent to which local people feel attachment to the space; especially as the ‘Other’ they often fought against were often part of the wider globalising forces which have made London so successful. While topics like rent increases or traffic congestion are city-wide issues, the community response is unique to much of the rest of London. For example, the Camden Council (1990) published a report arguing for the pedestrianisation of much of Lambs Conduit Street after consulting residents. In 1997, local protestors, angry that drivers were illegally using the pedestrian zone, surveyed road use and reported their findings to the police (Derbyshire, 1997). What this highlights, firstly, is the significance of local people identifying local issues that directly effect them, and the effort undertaken to protect “their” space. Secondly, it suggests that community action, an example of informal, local governance, can successfully represent local people and challenge policy. However, another example of local protests directly challenges the definition of “local”. A group of traders in the area opposed Rugby Estate’s rent increases which would see rents increase by up to 400% in three years (Tomlin, 2000). Some shops had already closed down since the start of the protests as they had nowhere else to go, and the local MP supported the community (McGregor, 2000). The informal, local governance model meant that there were few alternative options to protesting but an agreement was reached with the Rugby Estate. These examples highlight not just the loyalty local communities show towards the street but also the complex challenges posed by powerful actors in certain situations.

Figure 5: Welsh language display at The People’s Supermarket
Figure 5: Welsh language display at The People’s Supermarket

This, however, does not detract from the cultural value of the area which many respondents talked about. For one shopkeeper, she enjoyed being close to Coram’s Fields and exploring the area outside of work. For another, who lived in Hoxton, he said that the street felt like a village; although this again could be considered to support Massey’s argument that we can have multiple identities at any one time. The debate here is about the extent to which we reduce the notion of identity spatially until pluralities no longer exist. For someone living in Hoxton, and working in Bloomsbury, their identity is shaped by a variety of spaces, and there may even be commonalities between the two locations. Contrastingly, participant observation revealed how a number of businesses were introducing different cultures into the space; La Gourmandina, a restaurant, offered free copies of a magazine for French expats living in London while The People’s Supermarket created a display for St. David’s Day celebrating the Welsh language (see Figure 5) and they also stock a variety of foods from around the world. This suggests that while local people have opposed challenges to their identity from outside influences, this political economy does not produce a fixed culture, instead it provides a space for cultures to be celebrated but only when economically viable.

SECTION C: How sustainable is the current model of urban governance for Lambs Conduit Street?

When Ted Hughes wrote about 18 Rugby Street as a space for ‘perpetual performance’ his words could easily have described the environment in which the house sits. It is this unrelenting remaking of the environment which allows for a variety of actors to participate in informal, local government. While this project has highlighted how the local community has sought to defend its’ culture, Massey’s (1994) discussion of “power geometries” highlights the possible inequalities that may arise. This is evident in studies considering how the notion of a “neighbourhood” no longer exists for those disadvantaged by localities in London; Tunåker (2015) studied the effects of this for homeless youths while Lees and Baxter’s (2011) redefinition of space as “relational” instead of “representational” supports this point on inequality by arguing that physical barriers, as well as cultural ones, can shape how we think about the area.

While there are still benefits to strengthening localism because it helps to retain competitiveness (Amin, 20002), informal, local governance, in order to be successful, must remain a cohesive force. This comes at a time when wider macro forces in London are having a profound influence on local economies including this fieldsite. While rents can be managed sustainably by the Rugby Estate, the wider cost of living in the capital poses a threat to the viability of local peoples’ existence. Another business-owner told of how her friends were moving out to cities like Portsmouth and Southsea simply because it is cheaper. Therefore, the question should also consider the sustainability of London’s political economy. At a time when local communities are threatened by inflated prices, strong informal, local governance that is accessible to all will help to protect the local economy further as the ‘perpetual performance’ continues.


This project has highlighted the contemporary relevance of informal, local governance in London, despite the entrepreneurial, neo-liberal environment within which it operates. In some instances, this has become symbolic of local resistance but numerous examples of campaigns or social movements highlight the effectiveness of a community that can mobilise cohesively. The key focus of this paper has been to identify the modes of informal, local governance operating in the space, and recognise how local politics can influence an individuals’ sense of belonging. This has particular salience given how reliant London has become on global networks of trade and investment.

Three conclusions can be drawn from this project; chiefly, that a legacy of informal, local governance does exist within the area and it plays an important role today in establishing a thriving community. Furthermore, local people identify strongly with their community but it is important not to make assumptions regarding how individuals view themselves on different spatial levels. Finally, as greater competition for capital further inflates business costs for local people, the “institutional assemblages” need to work closely to protect the local community; this will be the greatest challenge facing the area for the foreseeable future as the introduction of certain chain stores selling luxury items in the area, such as J Crew, highlights an ongoing struggle between the ideals of a community and the profitability of buying into this.

It is important, however, that this paper does not advocate a form of cultural imperialism or a sense that local identity can only be formed by those privileged enough to be part of that informal, local governance. Instead, it calls for local councils, landowners and national policymakers to prioritise creating growth that protects the people effected by this economic growth. Community-focused urban development is essential if London is to ever contest the image of the “Great Wen”.


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